Our Toxic Atheist Rift

Inter Continental Bridge over the Continental Rift in Iceland
By Icelandknight (Own work)

I follow more atheist blogs than I can possibly keep up with. I really should limit myself to a more manageable number so that I might feel less overwhelmed, but I can never seem to do so. There is just too much great content out there in the atheist blogosphere. On really good days, I sometimes manage not to miss the best posts. On most days, I end up missing far too many. Fortunately, most end up being saved in my RSS reader, and this at least gives me a chance of discovering them later. I just found one from early January that is worth mentioning, inspiring me to write this post.

You may recall my brief take on the Avicenna Last plagiarism story shortly after news of it broke. I said that I thought Freethought Blogs (FtB) showed real integrity in how they made what had to be a difficult decision in expelling this blogger, and I acknowledged that I had been wrong in how I expected them to respond. This was the subject of the post I missed from JT Eberhard at What Would JT Do? I thought JT made some excellent points - not just about the plagiarism but about the larger subject of the rift. You know, the rift that has been dividing atheists for several years and still shows no signs of abating.

JT was aware that his post would bring strong responses from the Freethought Blogs (FtB) and Slymepit factions. He shared his thoughts anyway, and I'm glad he did. I thought he made some great points.

There is tribalism all over the atheist movement that wasn’t there five years ago and it manifests itself like people cheering for their favorite sports teams every time members of one group get the tiniest window to crow over the other. Five years ago it seemed our priority was attacking bad ideas. Anymore so many people are so damn preoccupied with attacking each other. Regardless of who threw the first punch, this is how it is now. People are losing their fire for activism because of this. People are walking away from the atheist movement because so much of what gets said goes beyond fighting for what’s right – it’s become about winning over the other side and demonizing those who aren’t ideologically pure in a perpetual explosion of petty drama.

There has been too much tribalism, and it has turned countless people off to online atheism and secular activism. In fact, it seems to have turned some people off to concepts like freethought, skepticism, and even cooperation with others who might hold different views. That strikes me as an unfortunate state of affairs. I sometimes wonder how different things might be today if this rift had never happened.

I know some will accuse JT of "false equivalence." In fact, this is one of the things he's likely heard from both of the two factions he addresses. I think such an accusation misses the points he's making. He suggests that there are decent people with good ideas and destructive people with bad ideas at FtB. This has certainly been my experience. He says that the same is true of the Slymepit. While I haven't visited the Slymepit enough to know whether he's right, I have interacted with some current and former pitters on Twitter and Facebook. I also peruse the #FtBullies hashtag from time-to-time to see what is happening. On this basis, it seems like JT is right about them (and the many others who oppose much of the behavior taking place around FtB but who have no connection to the Slymepit) too.

It seems like we ought to be interested in good ideas, regardless of where they originate. It also seems like we ought to be wary of bad ideas regardless of their source. It is difficult to see how guilt-by-association benefits us. But we seem to keep doing it even after we recognize we are doing it.

And even though almost everybody in both spaces cares about social justice, we’ve become so god damn preoccupied with guilt-by-association tactics it’s become enough to ignore somebody’s contributions because of the faction with which they align. This results in us spending about as much time fighting with people who share our same goals than with people who are literally working against those goals on a daily basis.

It has been clear for some time that the rift is counterproductive and has led many to check out. Sadly, it does not seem like we are any closer to a resolution today than we were five years ago. JT suggests that both "sides" need to "take a step back" and be willing to admit when those to whom they have been opposed get something right. That would be a step in the right direction, and it seems like good advice for all of us.